Feral Cat, Phillip Creek Station, NT
Feral Cat, Phillip Creek Station, NT

I don’t see too many feral cats while I’m driving around – I saw this one this past Sunday while driving south from Wycliffe Well to Alice Springs close to the Phillip Creek bridge on the Stuart Highway and I would have only seen perhaps a dozen dead roadside cats in many years driving the highways and backroads of the NT.

Most feral cats are just too clever to get caught out on the roadway. I’ve seen a few close to and crossing the road, and, like the birds that are drawn to roadkill carcasses on the roadway and roadside, feral cats most likely find that roadways provide good foraging grounds to prey on the many small birds and lizards that form the less visible side to the carnage that we cause in our obsessions with getting from A to B in the quickest way possible.

Two of my least favourite things...
Two of my least favourite things...

Sometime ago when I was a law student I was the foreman on a murder trial in the Supreme Court of the NT, but that’s a whole different story that I can’t say too much about.

One interesting item that has stuck in my memory from the three weeks spent in and out of the Jury Room was that much of the reading material provided there consisted of back copies of Australian Shooter – The magazine for sporting shooters. In one copy of the magazine there was an article written by a team of keen shooters who had been engaged by the NT government to conduct a survey of the long stretches of the Barkly Highway that runs from just north of Tennant Creek in the NT across to Mt Isa in Queensland.

What they found was fascinating – from memory they ended up with a feral cat head count of some several hundred cats – mostly found in the many tunnels and culverts running under the road. And they developed some interesting hunting techniques – they would stop some way away from the tunnel or culvert and walk up on either side of the tunnel, which appear to be a favourite day-time rest spots for feral cats. A couple of shotgun loads would be shot into the tunnel from one side followed by a similar load from the other. Then the carnage would be inspected…

Nobody knows to any degree of certainty just how many feral cats there are in Australia – let alone in the NT – and perhaps the number of these most effective and efficient killers out there is irrelevant – what might be more important is the effect of their predation, particularly of vulnerable populations of small mammals and birds.

The NT Department of Natural Resources advises that:

Feral cats have been in Australia since European settlement. They live independently of humans and are found in all habitats ranging from rainforest to desert throughout the Northern Territory.

Feral cats are secretive, cryptic, largely nocturnal and hard to catch which makes it difficult to monitor populations, especially over large areas. Available data indicate that feral cat populations fluctuate markedly in time and space. Densities can be high in some areas when conditions are favourable. During 1994, for example, the density of feral cats on the Barkly Tableland during an eruption of the Long-haired Rat, Rattus villosissimus, was estimated at 6.3/km2. In arid areas population densities of about 0.2/km2 are more typical. Male feral cats in the mulga woodlands of central Australia live in large territories approximately 2210 ha in size. However, in the tropics and in areas with rabbits, home ranges are likely to be much smaller.

Whether through predation, disease or competition, feral cats have undoubtedly played a role in the demise and extinction of native fauna, particularly in central Australia. A reintroduction programme for the Rufous Hare-wallaby or Mala (Lagorchestes hirsutus) in the Tanami Desert during the 1980s was unsuccessful due to predation by feral cats.

And I haven’t yet found a definition of just when a cat can be classed as feral or domestic companion animal – my own definition is a very narrow one – any cat outside of its own yard is a feral cat!